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After Trayvon Martin Killing, a Closer Look at Texas 'Castle Doctrine'

Participants at a march protesting the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Photo courtesy
Participants at a march protesting the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17 year-old African-American, by self-described neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, has sparked a national discussion about racial profiling and vigilante justice.

It has also prompted a more critical look at so-called “stand your ground” laws in Florida, the state where the incident took place, and across the nation, including Texas.

Police in the Orlando suburb of Sanford have yet to arrest Zimmerman, as Florida law permits the use of deadly force in self-defense. (Despite reports that he was the party to instigate the confrontation, Zimmerman says he did act in self-defense.)

While Florida has one of the broadest self-defense laws in the nation, similar but less permissive “castle doctrine” laws are in effect in numerous other states.

News non-profit ProPublica surveys how Florida’s law compares with other states:

In 2005, Florida became the first state to explicitly expand a person’s right to use deadly force for self-defense. Deadly force is justified if a person is gravely threatened, in the home, or “any other place where he or she has a right to be.” In Florida, once self-defense is invoked, the burden is on the prosecution to disprove the claim. Most states have long allowed the use of reasonable force, sometimes including deadly force, to protect oneself inside one’s home—the so-called Castle Doctrine. Outside the home, people generally still have a “duty to retreat” from their attacker, if possible, to avoid confrontation. In other words, if you can get away and you shoot anyway, you can be prosecuted. In Florida, there is no duty to retreat. You can “stand your ground” outside your home too.

Texas’ castle doctrine law, Senate Bill 378, “creates a presumption of reasonableness” in deadly incidents of self-defense, provided the following criteria are met: that the actor

1)       knew or had reason to believe that the person against whom the force or deadly force was used unlawfully and with force entered, or attempted to enter, the actor's home, vehicle, or place of business or employment; unlawfully and with force removed, or attempted to remove, the actor from the home, vehicle, or place of business or employment; or was committing or attempting to commit certain serious crimes; 2)       did not provoke the person against whom the force or deadly force was used; and 3)       was not otherwise engaged in certain criminal activity at the time the force or deadly force was used.

The Trayvon Martin conversation shows no sign of abating: the Department of Justice is investigating the situation, and yesterday, a “Million Hoodie March” was held in New York, where thousands assembled to protest Zimmerman’s freedom, clad in garments similar to the one Martin was wearing when he was killed.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.